Obama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena

Former officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations are pouring cold water on the idea that President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE’s interpreter from the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin should appear before Congress.

While multiple former Obama officials say they understand the desire to talk to one of the only people in the room with Trump and Putin, several argued it would set a dangerous precedent.

“For the same reasons why we need to protect our own diplomats, there is a real concern about having translators be subject to subpoenas,” said David Mortlock, director of international economic affairs at the White House National Security Council (NSC) under Obama.


He acknowledged that there is “legitimate concern about what the president may have promised Vladimir Putin.”

But he said subpoenaing an interpreter is a bridge too far, and would prevent presidents from speaking freely.

“They’re at the center of diplomatic relationships and it raises concerns about whether you can truly have diplomatic communications,” he said.

Ben Chang, who served as an NSC official under Obama, said while interpreters have “seen or heard a ton,” they ultimately serve as a “vessel” to guide and channel the president’s thoughts and ideas.

He argued that Congress should get to the bottom of the summit, but he thinks lawmakers instead need to subpoena officials such as Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoHouthis: US sanctions prolonging war in Yemen China plays the Trump card, but Biden is not buying it Trump: 'I can't imagine' any Republican would beat me in 2024 primary if I run MORE and national security adviser John Bolton.

The possibility that Trump summit interpreter Marina Gross will appear before Congress is remote for now given GOP control of both chambers.

Democrats were blocked Thursday when Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee rejected a motion to subpoena the interpreter.

Tony Fratto, who served as a White House deputy press secretary under former President George W. Bush, called it a “fruitless effort.”

“The law is clear. It would be bonkers to think this conversation doesn’t fall under executive privilege,” said Fratto, who frequently disagrees with Trump’s rhetoric and actions. “That’s not their job and the Constitution is pretty clear on that.”

Richard Fontaine, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWe need an independent 1/6 commission that the whole country can have confidence in GOP targets Manchin, Sinema, Kelly on Becerra The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading? MORE (R-Ariz.) and served at the NSC under Bush, also dismissed the suggestion.

“I feel their pain, but I don't think forcing the translator of the president to testify [about] what she heard will be successful,” Fontaine told The Hill, calling it “bad practice.”

“People on the Hill seem to have ever-short historical perspective, but at some point a Democrat will have a one-on-one with a leader or take a walk in the park with a leader and do you really want that?” he said.  “I know they want this, but I don't know that they want that.”

Democrats say the circumstances surrounding the Trump-Putin summit are exceptional, and justify the step of having lawmakers talk to Trump’s interpreter.

Trump and Putin met with just their interpreters present before aides later joined larger sessions.

The White House has been engulfed in controversy since the summit because of Trump’s remarks casting doubt on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Trump also criticized special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE’s investigation and put the blame for the state of the U.S.-Russian relationship on that probe and past U.S. governments — not Moscow.

Republicans and Democrats alike have slammed the performance, and Trump has sought to walk back his comments doubting U.S. intelligence on Russia’s election interference.

The controversy has also been colored by continued speculation about whether Putin has leverage on Trump.

“I think these are pretty extraordinary circumstances,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' White House defends not sanctioning Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi What good are the intelligence committees? MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It is not something I would recommend as an ordinary remedy in usual course of business, but I would hope that we would never again see a circumstance where the president of the United States would say I want to meet alone with my foreign adversary.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHow President Biden can hit a home run Former Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security MORE conceded on Thursday that he does not know what happened during the meeting between the two leaders, adding that there is also a “risk” that the Russians recorded their exchange.

“I think at the end of the day, the sad reality is we will never know with a degree of precision … what happened in that meeting,” said Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. 

Ellen Tauscher, who served as under secretary of State for arms control and international security under Obama, said Congress should absolutely pursue a deposition from Gross.

“This a very unfortunate place to be, but there’s so much smoke blowing in our faces,” she said.

Tauscher noted that even if the tables were turned and a State Department interpreter was being interviewed by a GOP Congress under Obama, the circumstances would still be different because Trump threw out the country’s diplomatic playbook while Obama abided by it.

Republicans, however, see Democrats as being hypocritical and playing a political game.

Schiff’s motion to subpoena the interpreter on Thursday visibly irritated House Republicans, who felt it was a distraction during a hearing on the national security threats posed by China.

Conservatives contend that executive privilege shields a president’s interpreter from reporting to Congress, while warning that subpoenaing her would create a dangerous precedent that could come back to haunt future presidents of either party.

And a number of experts agree with them.

“The president would be fully within his authority to claim executive privilege in this case,” said Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“It is likely that the two heads of state had discussions about some sensitive issues with national and international security implications and it would not be reasonable to expect an interpreter to know which topics require confidentiality,” added Rozell, who has authored a book on executive privilege.

Rep. Brad WenstrupBrad Robert WenstrupFormer Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel jumps into Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Which path will Democrats take on COVID-19 bill? Jim Jordan says he won't run for Senate in 2022 MORE (Ohio), a Republican who serves on the Intelligence Committee with Schiff, pointed to a private conversation that President Obama had with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of a NATO summit.

“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility,” Obama was heard saying to the Russian leader on a hot mic at the 2012 meeting.

Rep. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyRepublican rips GOP lawmakers for voting by proxy from CPAC House Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides MORE (R-Fla.) said if interpreters are asked to testify, U.S. presidents will find ways around using an interpreter.

In the end, it’s likely there will be no testimony by the interpreter, but that Democrats could use the issue for leverage as another political talking point to criticize Trump.

Miller, also a State Department negotiator and adviser on Middle East issues, described the move as nothing more than political theater.

“This is just another episode in the long-running saga between the Democrats, the Republicans and the administration,” Miller told The Hill.

“I think it is highly unlikely that you’re going to end up subpoenaing an interpreter. And I don’t think you’ll end up putting someone in that position. I think the administration will find another way to brief [on] what happened in that meeting, and it would makes sense from nobody’s perspective, in my judgment, to put an interpreter before a congressional committee. I can’t even imagine.”